November 2012

Daisy Rockwell

White Chick With A Hindi Ph.D.

All Hail Salman Rushdie. All Hail Joseph Anton.

At times, when she was reading the memoir, she was reminded of that cherished moment in her youth, when she had first read prose in Latin class. That too was a memoir, as it happens, and one also written in the third person singular.

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur.

Those luminous words, so clear, so forthright, so memorable.

All Gaul is divided into three parts...

Caesar's saucy decision to refer to himself as "he," instead of "I" -- it was modern then, it's modern now. And so, she rejoiced to be reunited once again with this form of self-writing, a veritable madeleine to her tween years, that awkward time between childhood and adolescence, when burgeoning young hormone-addled bodies lock horns and begin the cosmic dance of awakening...

When Caesar was informed by spies that the Helvetii had already conveyed three parts of their forces across that river, but that the fourth part was left behind on this side of the Saone, he set out from the camp with three legions during the third watch, and came up with that division which had not yet crossed the river.

With the same thoroughness of Julius Caesar himself, the author of the memoir she was reading recounted his years in the trenches as he fought back against the unjust fatwa of the Ayatollah Khomeini, handed down in 1989. It was no wonder that the memoir stretched to an impressive 656 pages, for the author had taken the time to recount in exhaustive detail the particulars of every housing arrangement he had undertaken during the eleven long years in which he lived in hiding, protected by a security detail furnished unenthusiastically by the British government.

Yet again the circle of friends found solutions the authorities were unable or unwilling to offer. Fitz began the hunt and soon came up with a house in Highgate, north London, with a gated forecourt, an integral garage, enough room for both protection officers and broth drivers to sleep on the premises, and a substantial and secluded garden, which would allow him to feel a little less like a mole in a hole.

Living underground was extremely expensive she learned, and if it were not for the apparently brisk sales of the author's books, he would have been forced to live at an army barracks of some kind, and been deprived of the cherished company of all the luminaries he counted among his intimate circle of friends. Thankfully, he at least had the support of so many lovely people; Susan (Sontag) was a dear (though she could be so very wicked at times), Vaclav (Havel) was warmly supportive, GŁnter (Grass) was terribly understanding. The memoir's six hundred some pages are scarcely adequate, in point of fact, to contain the exuberant love and gratitude experienced by the author toward his friends and associates. This may account, she thought to herself, for the volume's girth, roughly triple that of the venerable Caesarian memoir, as that great Roman did not perhaps enjoy a literary circle nearly so warm nor so loving as the author of the memoir in question.

In point of fact, some readers may know that the life of Julius Caesar was cut short by a group of devious plotters from his own circle of friends and associates, and not by some foreign hand of the sort that sought (and still seeks?) to terminate the earthly existence of the author of The Satanic Verses and other well known works of fiction. And yet, even nestled among the illustrious bosoms of an affectionate band of literati, the fatwa-ed author found a serpent that harbored venomous intent toward his health and well-being. That serpent, though not operating with the same deadly aims as the bearded religious leaders from Tehran to Bradford that sought his demise, nonetheless harbored ill will toward the benighted author, spreading slanderous tales amongst some of his friends, sleeping with others of them, and most egregiously, stealing a number of albums of irreplaceable family photos that were never returned. The harpy's name was Marianne Wiggins, the author's second wife (of four), to whom he was married at the time the Fatwa was declared. If the Ayatollah Khomeini occupies a level of evil equivalent to Voldemort in the memoir, she mused to her husband while reading the new memoir, surely this Marianne Wiggins ranked not far behind, although perhaps she was overstating the case, she added. Perhaps Wiggins was evil, but of a sexy, not absurdly harmful variety, something more on the order of Spike the Vampire, or Scarlett O'Hara. "Will you put this in your review?" her husband asked, as he perused the live-blogging of a presidential debate. "Yes, perhaps I will," she had responded.

As the evil Wiggins receded, the lovely and patient Elizabeth West took her place. West was eventually superseded by the author's most famous wife, but not before other infidelities and a British lack of enthusiasm on the part of West toward New York City, the author's unabashed Xanadu, his locus of freedom -- from his security detail, from the ill-tempered British press, and eventually from his third marriage. In chapter nine, "His Millenarian Illusion," where, she has since learned, most discerning readers tend to commence their perusal of the memoir, the author at last meets that stunning Tamilian American celebrity chef that became, briefly, his fourth, and most likely, his tallest, wife:

In early August 1999 the millenarian illusion that would overpower him and change his life presented itself to him in female form on, of all places, Liberty Island. It was laughable, really, that he met her under the Statue of Liberty. In fiction the symbolism of such a scene would have felt ponderously overweight. But real life sometimes rammed its point home just to make sure you got it, and in his real life Tina Brown and Harvey Weinstein gave a lavish party on Liberty Island to launch their short-lived Talk magazine, and there were fireworks in the sky and Macy Gray singing I try to say goodbye and I choke, I try to walk away and I stumble, and a guest list that ranged all the way from Madonna to himself.

A certain confusion seems to linger in the author's mind as to the exact composition of this Millenarian Illusion. Was she real, or just a fantasy?

"He was a married man. His wife and their two-year-old child were waiting for him at home, and if things had been different there" -- inadequate intimacy due to the birth of said child, and the discovery of wholly unimportant marital infidelity on the part of the author had contributed to connubial alienation --

he would have grasped the obvious truth that an apparition who seemed to embody everything he hoped for from his future, a Lady Liberty made of flesh and blood, had to be a mirage, and that to plunge toward her as if she were real was to court disaster for himself, inflict unconscionable pain upon his wife, and place an unfair burden upon the Illusion herself, an American of Indian origin who had grand ambitions and secret plans that had nothing to do with the fulfillment of his deepest needs.

A mirage, of flesh and blood! An Indian American with secret plans! An Illusion not intent on fulfilling his deepest needs! Is this another vampire lover, ŗ la Wiggins? A human Barbie doll? A willful trophy? An illusory faery princess? Or a conniving narcissistic biyotch who would eventually leave him for someone with much, much more money? Eventually his Illusion would

...stab him in the heart and vanish from his life, not in a green puff of smoke like the Wicked Witch of the West but in some ancient Scrooge McDuck's private jet, into his private world at Dismal Downs and other places filled with wretchedness and cash. After eight years during which she had told him once a week on average that he was too old for her she ended up with a duck who was two hundred years older, because Scrooge McDuck would open the enchanted door that allowed her into her own secret dreamworld of infinite entitlement, of life lived with no limits on the Big Rock Candy Mountain with the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees...

Ultimately, though she was confused by the implication that celebrity chef had left the celebrated author to inhabit the hobo's paradise so richly described in the song "Big Rock Candy Mountain" ("In the Big Rock Candy Mountains / All the cops have wooden legs / And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth / And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs"), she understood from this and further passages that the marriage had not gone well, that the author felt that the chef was too narcissistic to fulfill his fantasies, and that she was "just too goddamned gorgeous to leave." It seemed that by the time the author had emerged from this marriage, he was effectively footloose and fatwa-free, and has, according to the gossip blogs, continued to enjoy a high-flying existence in New York, city of liberty, ever since. And perhaps, all things being equal, it was the author, more than the chef, who had reached the Big Rock Candy Mountain, a place where he was able to walk freely without fear of apprehension and where all the amenities that a celebrated author might enjoy were his for the taking ("In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, / The jails are made of tin. / And you can walk right out again, / As soon as you are in").

And so, eventually, she found herself wending her way to the close of the voluminous reminiscences of an author whom she had greatly admired at one time, whose novels she had taught in university classes, whose right to free speech she had celebrated. It would have been too much she realized, to have hoped that a writer who had always waxed verbose should have tried for brevity and lucidity when sharing his own extraordinary story with the world. A memoir perhaps a third the length, carved down to a manageable Caesarian size, might have lacked the exhaustive details of the volume at hand, but could have served as a testament to a life lived in defiance of closed mindedness and intolerance, and a rallying cry for the individual's right to free and open expression. And though she would be the first to admit that Julius Caesar might be found wanting as a stylist, she regretted that the celebrated author of the new memoir she had just read had passed the point in his career when an editor would ask for a whittling down of details and a keener focus in which to present his dazzling turns of phrase and bewitching imaginative universe.

Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie
Random House
ISBN: 978-0812992786
656 pages